Words We're Watching

Words We're Watching: 'Criming'

The (not-actually criminal) criming times of 'crime'

What to Know

We are seeing increased usage of criming as a verb form of "crime." Meaning "to commit a crime," this is an example of functional shift that is common in English where a noun shifts into usage as a verb.

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The laws of English are... a bit flexible.

Does it bother you when a word starts behaving like it's some other part of speech? When, for example, a noun starts verbing? Do you perhaps feel like such a noun is committing a kind of lexical crime? Would your botheration reach new heights if someone said such a word was, uh, criming?

Functional Shift

We would never call such an occurrence "criming"—we see it simply as an example of a common process called "functional shift." But our interest here is actually in the word criming itself.

While the word crime has mostly stuck to being a noun for its half-millennium existence, we've recently seen the word reaching into new verb territory, especially in its present participle form:

[Ricky] Gervais spent his opening monologue targeting a billionaire pedophile and his powerful enablers, big businesses bending the knee to the Chinese dictatorship, and rich celebrities criming their children's ways into college.
— Tiana Lowe, The Examiner (Washington, D.C.), 6 Jan. 2020

In this context, crime is a verb meaning "to commit a crime." As is so often the case with functional shift, the efficiency of the new use is impossible to ignore, and sometimes impossible to resist.

Usage of 'Criming'

The use hasn't settled in fully yet; it's often placed in quotation marks that signal that the writer is using the word self-consciously:

These characters are not climbing, but "criming" the ladder to power. These are political partners who have no respect for their oath.
— Frank Trotz, Jr., The Daily American (Somerset, Pennsylvania), 9 Mar. 2020

But the use has in fact been murmuring in the language's background for at least a few decades:

Before turning the case over to the jury, prosecutor Jeannine Barr said O'Brien had proved incorrigible. His history of "wilding and criming with his friends'' should "make your blood boil,'' she told the jury.
— Jennifer Liebrum, The Houston Chronicle, 10 Apr. 1994

The use also appears in compounds, where its efficiency is amplified:

… you'd be forgiven for assuming that he was in jail for hate-criming someone—probably a transgender teenager wanting to attend prom or something.
— D'Anne Witkowski, Between the Lines (Livonia, Michigan), 29 Nov. 2018

Hate-criming in this case stands in for the phrase "committing a hate crime against."

Those readers who are familiar with British English might right now be saying, Hold up a minute! We've got a verb crime! And yes, you do: in British English crime is sometimes, especially in law enforcement jargon, used to mean "to classify (an act) as a particular kind of crime":

Devon and Cornwall Police say the cause of the fire is being treated as suspicious and that it will be "crimed as arson".
— Joel Cooper, LiveDevon.com (UK), 23 Sept. 2019

The same use appears in the compound no-crime, which means "to classify (an act) as something other than a crime":

"As part of our victim-centred approach, we record all crimes—even where the suspect is immediately identified as a child under the age of 10. Previously, these offences would either be no-crimed or marked as ‘undetected’ ..."
— Jon Morgan, quoted in The Yorkshire Evening Post (Leeds, UK), 6 Oct. 2018

Other Uses of 'Crime' as a Verb

The Oxford English Dictionary also reports that crime is used with the person committing an act, rather than the act committed, as the object of the verb. Their entry includes a quote from Frank Howard's 2003 book From Prison to Parliament:

Chin's rule about making contraband items was simple: if you got caught, you got crimed.

This use of crime, which means "to charge (a person) with a crime or offense," developed from an older slang use covered in both the OED and Merriam-Webster's Unabridged Dictionary: "to indict and punish (a soldier) for a minor infraction of military rules."

It's unlikely that these older uses of crime led to the current newer use. The new development is instead likely a result of the same process that gave us the verb mandate 400 years after the noun came into use, and the verb murder centuries after the noun's appearance: the language expands to communicate more effectively, more efficiently. Verbing is natural, which means if it's a crime, it's nature doing the criming.

Words We're Watching talks about words we are increasingly seeing in use but that have not yet met our criteria for entry.



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